Captain Video Gets an Upgrade

I’m going HD.

Captain Video is one of my “personal nicknames” — a name I apply to myself when I do something that’s silly or dumb or, in this case, an attempt to explore something new that’s currently beyond my skill set.

I’ve been interested in video for the past 10 or 15 years. I write for a living and I always thought it would be interesting to be involved with a video documentary project. Although one of my dreams has been to work on the research and composition of a documentary’s narrative, I really wanted to be part of the project throughout the video acquisition process, watching the cameramen and other professionals at work, seeing interviews conducted, listening to the director explain his goals for each shot.

I also toyed with the idea of doing my own video. We’ve owned various video cameras from the time the first shoulder mounted VHS machines hit the scenes. Cameras have been getting better, cheaper, and smaller. Over the past five or six years, I bought two different Canon video cameras. I used them a lot when I first bought them, then put them aside. Now their batteries never seem to be charged when I want to use them.

But earlier this year, I did make the big plunge into video production. I did it what I thought was the smart way: I hired a production team. Their job was to acquire the video that I could not shoot — mostly because I was flying a helicopter while the shots needed to be made. They would then take the video and put the best shots in the proper order using the proper transitions and adding the proper music and narration. The result: not one but three final broadcast-length/quality videos.

I won’t go into detail on how this is working out. It’s still to early in the process to say. In general, we have a lot of good footage — almost every bit of it in true high definition taken with professional video equipment. But there are gaps in the footage — scenes I need to tell my stories. And I simply can’t afford to get the video crew back up on location for a few days to get the shots I need.

HandyCam.jpgEnter the Sony HDR CX12 video camera. It’s small, lightweight, easy to operate, and shoots true high definition footage on Sony memory sticks. My production crew has one of these cameras and a lot of the footage shot with it was very usable. While not exactly cheap, it was affordable. I ordered it on Amazon.com yesterday, along with a spare battery and an 8 GB memory stick.

In December or January, Mike and I will head up to Page, AZ to pick up the video clips we need. We have some other business up there to attend to anyway, so we’ll be able to kill two birds with one stone. We’ll watch the weather and pick a weekend with calm winds and clear skies. We’ll fly the helicopter up with doors off on a Saturday, picking up needed clips along the way. Then we’ll do some late afternoon flying over the lake, spend the night in a motel, and follow it up with some early morning shots. Mike and I will take turns shooting, using the camera on the side of the aircraft with the best view of what we need to shoot. Then we’ll fly home, where I’ll put all the footage on a hard disk or series of DVDs and send them to my production crew for inclusion in the final videos.

At least that’s the plan.

Realize that I’m very worried that once this project is over, this camera will sit in a drawer with the others. The power will drain from its battery and I’ll be frustrated every time I take it out to use it. It’s going to take real effort on my part to keep using it. Probably a few small projects. None of those projects require HD, but it will be nice to save the footage in that format for future use.

I do need to mention here that I’ve been sitting on the fence about buying this camera since I first heard of it. My fears of not utilizing it and the price tag were the main things holding me back. But the need for HD video to complete my projects was a big motivator. It’s a lot cheaper to buy the camera and get the footage myself than to transport a video crew from San Diego to Page, AZ and back. To be honest, I’m also worried that they won’t get the footage I need on this second try, either. (You know what they say about wanting to get things done right.)

The thing that convinced me was the September 3, 2008 review on Amazon.com by Allen C. Huffman. It’s the first review that appears — probably because everyone who voted on it said it was helpful. He gave the camera 4 out of 5 stars and then provided some extremely helpful details and advice about using the camera with a Mac. He listed pros and cons about the camera, comparing it to another Sony model he owned and liked. This “real life” review by someone who is obviously not easily impressed helped convince me that this was the right camera for me.

Anyway, I’ve taken the plunge. Let’s see how much use I get out of this new piece of equipment.

A[nother] Trip to Lower Antelope Canyon

I finally make time to do a photo walk in the sandstone canyon.

For the past month and a half, I have been living less than two miles from Antelope Canyon in Page, AZ.

Lower Antelope CanyonIf you don’t know what Antelope Canyon is, you’ve probably never read Arizona Highways or seen any of the “typical” Arizona photos out there on the Web. As Wikipedia states, “Antelope Canyon is the most-visited and most-photographed slot canyon in the American Southwest.” Its reddish sandstone walls glow with direct and reflected light at midday, emphasizing the texture of the swirling patterns on the walls.

There are actually two Antelope Canyons: Upper and Lower. Most people go to the Upper canyon, which is upstream (south) of the other area. Upper Antelope Canyon is a short 1/4 mile stretch of slot canyon cut into a huge sandstone rock in the middle of Antelope Wash. It features cool, swirling sandstone walls and hard-packed, almost level sandy floor. I’ve written about it at least twice in this blog: “Antelope Canyon” (September 2006) and “Four Tips for Great Antelope Canyon Photos” (April 2007).

Entrance to Lower Antelope CanyonLower Antelope Canyon is downstream from upper. It has far fewer visitors. I think it’s more spectacular — with corkscrew-like carvings and at least two arches — but I also think it’s harder to photograph. It’s also far more difficult to traverse, requiring climbing up and down iron stairs erected at various places inside the canyon, clambering over rocks, and squeezing through narrow passages. For this reason, the Navajo caretakers don’t really limit your time in Lower Antelope Canyon. You slip through a crack in the ground — and I do mean that literally (see photo left) — and are on your own until you emerge from where you descended or from the long, steep staircase (shown later) that climbs out before the canyon becomes impossible to pass.

Lower Antelope CanyonI went to Lower Antelope Canyon with my next door neighbor and fellow pilot, Robert, today. It had been a whole year since my only other visit. After paying the $26/person entrance fee, I told the woman in the booth that I’d been there before. She told us to go on down, without waiting for a guide.

I had a few things with me that I didn’t have on my last visit. First and foremost was a tripod. I’d left my tripod behind on my last visit, thinking the light would be bright enough not to need it. Wrong. This time, I had a sturdy tripod I’d borrowed from Mike just for this trip. The only problem was, the tripod was old, its legs could not be spread independently, and the tripod was stiff from age or disuse. I also had two lenses I didn’t own last year: my 10.5 mm fisheye lens and my new 16-70 mm zoom lens. I packed light, bringing just the tripod and the camera with those two lenses. Rather than use my camera bag, I put the lens that wasn’ ton the camera in a fanny pack, along with a bottle of water and a lens brush.

Lower Antelope CanyonWe arrived at about 11:20 AM and the place was unusually crowded. But Lower Antelope Canyon is large and everyone spread out. Most folks only made the walk one way, taking the stairs up and hiking back on the surface. We would have done the same, but we ran out of time. We were in there until 2:30 PM; Robert had to be at work by 4 PM.

Robert in Lower Antelope CanyonWe made our way through the canyon slowly, stopping to take photos along the way. Positioning the tripods was extremely difficult sometimes, as the canyon floor was often only wide enough for a single foot to stand in it. My tripod really hindered me, but I made it work. I think Robert (shown here) had an easier time with his. We were two of dozens of photographers, most of which were very polite and stayed clear of other photographer’s frames. This is the biggest challenge at Upper Antelope Canyon. I find it stressful up there, as I told a trio of photographers from Utah. Lower Antelope Canyon is much more relaxing.

Lower Antelope Canyon StairsNear the end of the canyon walk, I was worn out. It wasn’t the hike as much as the struggle to find the right shots and get the tripod into position. I felt as if I’d had enough. So when we reached the last chamber before the canyon got very narrow (and muddy) and I laid eyes on those stairs, I realized it would definitely be better to take the easier route back. I took this shot with my fisheye lens, which was the only way to get the entire staircase in the shot. If you look closely, you can see Robert’s head poking out near the top.

Lower Antelope CanyonI took about 95 photos while in the canyon. Some of the better ones — along with some to illustrate the story — are here. There’s a better collection in my Photo Gallery’s new Arizona section. I’ll probably add others — as well as shots I’ve taken around Lake Powell lately — soon.

If you’re ever in or near Page, AZ, I highly recommend taking the time to visit one of the Antelope Canyons. Even if you don’t take a single photo, a walk through the canyon is something you’ll remember for a lifetime.

A New Lens

But Mike gets to use it first!

I’d treated myself to a new camera lens late last month. When I returned from Washington last week, it was waiting for me at home.

Product ImageThe lens is a Nikon 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S DX ED VR Nikkor Wide Angle Telephoto Zoom Lens. It’ll replace the 18-55mm lens I bought on eBay last year — the same lens that crapped out on me about two months ago. (Another reason not to buy used camera equipment on eBay.) That lens was cheap and it felt cheap — lightweight and plasticky. This lens was costly and it has a weighty, quality feel to it.

But that’s not why I bought it. It was the Amazon reviews that convinced me. Although I’ll never rely on reviews there to buy a book — I’ve been burned before, in more ways than one — I find that reviews of camera equipment are generally fair and reliable. It’s easy to identify fanboys and people with a gripe against the company. Weed those out and you can get some solid opinions of the products. In this case, just about all owners liked the lens.

But it was comments like these that sold me:

I have both the 18-135 and the 18-200, yet this lens has become my everyday go to lens for most of my photography. …Given the great sharpness (especially in the 16-50mm range), VR, and almost total lack of noticeable CAs, I can highly recommend the 16-85 for a general purpose, on-the-camera-all-the-time lens. – D80Shooter

I think 16-85mm VR and 70-300 VR lenses is probably all amateur like me needs, with light and compact 16-85mm VR lens mounted on camera most of the time. – Alex

This is how I was using the 18-55mm lens — as an everyday lens. This one promised more flexibility with better optics.

Of course, when I got back to Wickenburg, I had just 3 days to do a ton of stuff. I didn’t have time to play with the lens other than to snap a few photos in the kitchen to check the focal length range. Photography would have to wait.

New Bryce CanyonWhen we flew to Seattle on Friday, the new lens was in my camera bag with the rest of the camera equipment I take on the road. But with the back problems that have been slowing me down, I didn’t have time to do anything fun in Seattle, despite the fact that we had the whole day there. (I spent much of it sleeping off some painkillers.) The next morning, we began our helicopter flight from Seattle to Page. I was sitting up front, handling navigation while Louis flew. I had my hands full with directions for our scud-run south. I didn’t realize it at first, but Mike was sitting in back, snapping photos with the new lens. He continued to do so on both days of the flight and got quite a few good shots from the air. This photo, taken just outside of the Bryce Canyon area, is especially attractive to me because of the shadow created by the big, puffy, low clouds.

N630MLat Spanish ForkMy photography was limited to shots taken on the ground, like this photo of my helicopter at the Spanish Fork, UT airport. Although the photo doesn’t seem too interesting in this low-res shot, it’s really impressive in full-resolution, with clear detail of the clouds — enhanced with the use of a circular polarizing filter on the camera (not in Photoshop) — and dramatic mountains in the background. I think it’s my new favorite picture of my helicopter.

I’ll be uploading the best photos from the flight to my gallery at Flying M Photos.

I’m in Page, AZ now, planning to spend the next month and a half flying tours around Lake Powell and Monument Valley. (You can learn more about my summer flying gigs on the Flying M Air Web site.) I’m also working hard this month to complete my 72nd book, which, unfortunately, I can’t talk about here. So while I’ll be very busy through August, I should have free time in September to go exploring. Antelope Canyon is less than 5 miles away and I expect to spend several mid-day sessions in Lower Antelope Canyon. There’s also an interesting rock formation called The Wave within 50 miles of here — not sure where yet — and if my back heals up, I’ll take a hike there. This new lens should be perfect for these tight locations, since it offers a really wide view without much distortion. (My fisheye lens can take some cool photos, but its a limited use lens.) I might also charter an airplane for some aerial photo work. Airplanes are extremely limited for this kind of work — helicopters are so much better — but it might be worthwhile to give it a try.

If you have a lens like this, I’d love to hear from you. Use the Comments link or form for this post to share your thoughts.

George Washington at the 76

Am I the only one who thinks this is funny?

On Saturday, on my way back from Ellensburg, I stopped off in George to buy a quart of milk. George is 5 miles south of my camper, and despite the fact that I’d driven past the town a half dozen times, I’d never stopped there.

The cleanest looking place in town to buy milk was the 76 gas station. I pulled in and parked. That’s when I spotted the bronze bust of George Washington. Moments later, I realized I was in George, Washington. (Duh-uh.) And then I realized that the 76 (as in 1776) sign was right behind George’s head.

So I took the photo.

George in Washington

Am I the only one who thinks this whole thing is funny?

More Stupid eBay Buyers

Proof (again) that many people who buy on eBay are idiots.

A few months back, I speculated that eBay was for suckers when I reported on the condition of a “mint” condition lens I’d bought at almost retail and an auction for another lens that I passed on when the bid went more than $100 higher than the selling price on Amazon.com.

What “Mint” Really Means

According to my Mac OS X Dictionary widget, mint, when used as an adjective, means “in pristine condition; as new.” If that’s the case, then why is the term “mint,” when used on eBay, always followed up with additional describing words and phrases like “It is in mint condition, no scratches, no dust and no marks”?

Hello? Mint means mint. Like new. New items don’t have scratches or dust.

Unless, of course, you’re dealing with an eBay item.

The lens I bought that was in “mint” condition looked as if it had been on a shelf for two years. Yes, some of the dust had been wiped off, but there was enough in the cracks and crevices to tell the tale. And there was the tiniest of scratches on the lens closest to the camera body. That’s not mint.

And my husband, who recently decided that the low profile wheels that came with his used AMG weren’t quite right for Wickenburg’s dirt roads, replaced them with “mint” condition stock wheels. In the seller’s world, “mint” is an adjective that can be applied to tire rims that have obviously been scraped along a curb. No amount of polishing will get those scratches out. My husband’s good deal wasn’t such a good deal after all.

I try to use words carefully. Because of that, I would never apply the word “mint” to any item that has been used in any way. Unfortunately, I’m one of the few people who take the meaning of words like “mint” seriously.

The Price Thing Still Cracks Me Up

The other day, I bought another lens from Amazon.com — but not before I started “watching” an auction for a “4-month old,” “mint” condition lens on eBay. The auction ended a little while ago and the lens sold for $454. Add $19.95 shipping and the final price was just $5 less than I paid Amazon for a brand new lens.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s worth the extra $5 to get something brand new in a box, shipped by a reputable company than to get suckered in by yet another eBay seller offering “mint” merchandise that isn’t.

So the question is, don’t these eBay buyers do their homework? Don’t they realize that they can buy brand new items for less than they’re paying for [often] misrepresented used items?

Or does the excitement of the auction process get them to bid stupidly?